Netroots and the Activist Class War

Chris Bowers has an interesting take on why the netroots are so angered over Paul Hackett being nudged out of the Ohio Senate race by Democratic Party leaders.

This is about power and class within the world of progressive activists. This is how the netroots and the blogosphere primarily diverge from the rest of the Democratic Party. Over the past four years, the blogosphere has emerged as the primary messaging medium for the progressive activist working class. While progressive activists of all levels of power participate within the blogosphere, for every Hill staffer who reads blogs, there are one thousand small donors, canvassers and envelope stuffers who read them. For every elected official or high-level campaign who starts a blog, there are one thousand political blogs written by people who have little or no connections within the progressive establishment. Event today, with the rise of highly trafficked institutional blogs such as Think Progress and The Huffington Post, for every person who reads a blog produced from established powers within the progressive establishment, there are five or six people who read blogs written by people like me who started blogging without any institutional power or connections whatsoever. Paul Hackett had the support of the majority of the online, progressive, activist working class. He was forced out of the race by the aristocracy of the progressive activist class. That is where the anger is coming from.

The anger is also coming from blame for the continued failures of the progressive movement over the past twelve years. The activist working class blames the activist elite for our losses since 1994. They frequently don’t trust the decisions the elite makes, especially when the elite does not consult with them when making decisions, and especially when the decisions seem primarily to benefit the progressive powers-that-be (like this one). Considering the recent track record of progressive in the political arena, can anyone really blame them?

The anger is also coming from being taken for granted. The activist working class is not employed in the world of politics. They do not derive their income form politics, but they do spend their income and their free time on politics. When people who re running the show keep losing, the activist working class sees its hard earned money and precious little free time go to waste. The anger comes form people growing tired of offering their resources to leaders who seem to be making nothing but bad decisions that lead to defeat. They feel as though they are expected to keep giving, as though the resources they are offering aren’t precious to them.

The anger is also coming from a newfound class stratification within the online world itself. Many bloggers, myself included, who were once total outsiders in the progressive movement have definitely leapfrogged a few class levels within the progressive movement. Markos is no longer just someone with a blog who regularly joins in the comments sections to his posts. Now, he is a media mogul with an audience approaching one million readers per day. He can raise tens of thousands of dollars for candidates. He can make news with a single blog post. He can call a Senator and have the call returned by that Senator, not by a form letter photocopied by a staffer. And I shouldn’t single out Markos on this front either. A lot of us, myself included, now have a lot more access and power than we ever imagined we would. In the last two months, I have met Howard Dean and Russ Feingold. I have been to a meeting in Harry Reid’s office, not fifteen feet from the Senate floor itself, with many high level consultants I had only seen on television or heard quoted in the newspaper. Presidents of major advocacy organizations will sit down and talk with me personally. I have interviewed more than a handful of federally elected officials, and several major news outlets have interviewed me myself. I was actually able to commission a full-fledged public survey, for crying out loud.

This is another way the anger is coming out here. The same bloggers who were once total outsiders, average community members, and representatives of the progressive activist working class online are no longer members of the progressive activist working class. They have become upper-middle class–sometimes even higher than that–but they are still running the blogosphere that is the primary communication with the activist working class. As our position within the class structure of the progressive activist world changes, it is almost inevitable that our perception of the world changes as well. We are not as good at representing the activist working class as we once were. Not two weeks ago, I begged MyDD readers to take me back to school and re-educate me as to the psychology of the netroots. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I was gradually growing more annoyed with, and dismissive of, the same community that I once found so incredibly stimulating and insightful.

The way that the Ohio Senate primary ended, and the anger that ensued online, is another example of the ongoing and constantly evolving class war within the progressive movement. I am not saying that I have the solution to this class stratification, but I think we would all be better served if we started recognizing it and talking about it.

The idea that the party elite are taking the base for granted is a lament shared on both sides of the aisle, although probably more by the out party at any given moment. So, too, is the mainstreaming of A-list bloggers on both sides. Perhaps self-importance and a sense of entitlement from readership and access that was unthinkable when the blog started is a commonality, too.

What’s starkly different, however, is that I can not think of a blogger on the Right who thinks of himself as representative of anybody other than himself. Nor, I suspect, has it ever occured to an A-lister on the Right that they were spokesmen for the Little People. Most successful bloggers are well educated and reasonably successful in their private careers. Most are white collar professionals. This is just as true, if not more so, on the Left than the Right. Kos is a lawyer. Atrios is a PhD economist. Bowers is a political consultant and PhD candidate. Whatever their childhood circumstances, none of them are working class.

Further, aside from education and income, political bloggers and political blog readers are not representative of the masses. We are policy wonks, activists, or both. That makes us very, very atypical.

As Bowers himself has documented quite extensively, the Right and Left blogospheres have evolved in different directions. Rightish bloggers are mostly single authors pontificating on issues that interest them; even the group blogs, with the possible exception of Red State, are along that model. While there are plenty of bloggers on the Left that have followed that path, most of those that have surged to the top are mass participation communitarian sites. The top Lefty blogs are actively trying to raise money and influence elections whereas the blogs on the Right are simply commenting on events. I suspect these two trends are related, although the directionality is unclear.

It may well be that things would have evolved in the opposite direction had Al Gore carried Florida in 2000 and been re-elected in 2004. Perhaps the Left blogsphere is just a manifestation of anger on the Left, which is mostly a function of being both on the outside looking in and yet close enough to taste victory. Or, perhaps, it is just part of the nature of what makes some people “conservative” and others “liberal.” Since blogging as we now understand it is a post-2000 election phenomenon, there is no way to know for sure.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Oldtom says:

    What changed FDR liberals into Progressives?

    TR progressives? Henry Wallace progressives?

    I think this another example of The New Soviet Man discovering that having power is pretty neat, but still having to pay lip service to the Party Line. N.B. asking for re-education.

  2. McGehee says:

    Actually, didn’t Henry Wallace later run for office as a Progressive?

  3. M. Murcek says:

    Class class class. It’s the old game of keep repeating a word until it’s just gibberish. I think that’s one of the big reasons that liberals, progressives, leftists – whatever they’re calling themselves this week – can’t simply decide on a message and get behind it. It has to pass the dialectical sniff test first, and then, maybe, (but not very often) be examined for whether or not it makes any sense at all to voters in general.

    I’m reminded of that old Cheech & Chong routine, with Sister Mary Elephant saying “Class. Class! SHADDUPPPPPP!